It’s probably no exaggeration to say that home educators
have done more to advance the scientific understanding of the nature of
learning than a century of research based in schools. Home educating
families do not have to adhere to the conventions and traditions that
have grown to surround learning in schools. Instead, they have the
freedom and indeed the compulsion to custom design an education that
suits them, their children and their lifestyles. Nowhere is this freedom
clearer than when it comes to unschooling where the philosophy of the
classroom is abandoned as learning ceases to be a separately definable
part of life. The result is a form of education in which the theories
which support professional education in school are contradicted and
questioned at every turn.
Where home educators lead, researchers have to follow,
trying to unravel how this learning actually happens. Unschooling, at
least from the outside, can easily give the
impression of a higgledy-piggledy mess in which the subject matter of
the conventional curriculum fails to feature significantly and indeed
parents themselves sometimes struggled to be specific over what and how
their children were learning. Certainly there is currently little or no
satisfactory academic understanding of the kind of informal or natural
learning demonstrated by unschooled children at home. Our recent
research described in our book How Children Learn at Home
(Bloomsbury Publishing, 2008)
seeks to begin the job of filling this theoretical black hole.
We talked to 26 unschooling or autonomous families about
their lives, the things their children did and how they themselves saw
their children’s learning progressing. We began with some practical
questions – looking at what different families do, what works for them
First we sought to explain
what children learnt in terms of the everyday world around them.
Children at home are surrounded by the artifacts
and skills of their culture and by ongoing demonstrations of how to use
these things by more experienced members of the culture – everything
from how to use a door handle to driving a car. Although it is not set
up for learning, separated from the real world, broken down into tiny
sequential steps and pre-digested as it is in school, this information
is readily available and already in working context for children to
explore. Second, we come to the role that children themselves play in
their own learning.
Young children are naturally motivated to explore,
to play, to be with their parents, to imitate and experiment.... Reading
is one of the many skills which children are able to pick up simply
through living full and sociable lives as members of their own families;
many families know this through their own experiences and through
sharing the experiences of others.
Accepted, and embraced, as it is by so many inside the
home educating community, the very idea of natural learning continues to raise eyebrows (to
put it mildly) amongst academics and professional educators. Here the
response is much more likely to be that only exceptional children might
be able to achieve this whilst the vast majority need to be specifically
taught and that over a number of years. Challenging these entrenched
views is not easy!
Alan Thomas is Visiting Fellow at the
University of London, Institute of Education. He is a Fellow of the
British Psychological Society. Harriet Pattison is a Research Associate
at the University of London, Institute of Education. Her three children
are home educated. This article was published in 2009.